FINDING NEW VOICES
DEFINING NEW GENRES
Allez les Verts
As Euro 2016 beckons, can the two Irelands dare to dream?
One sunny day during the 1982 World Cup, we watched with eager anticipation as Northern Ireland shaped up to host nation Spain in Valencia. Spain were, at that time, not the powerhouse they have since become, but were on the ascendant and, let’s not forget, were only two years away from securing the runner-up slot at Euro 1984. Against all the odds, and despite having a man sent off, the North held their own, and the mighty Gerry Armstrong capitalised on a goalkeeping mistake early in the second half to score the only goal of the game and send his side through as group winners.
What does this episode tell us? Aside from earning Armstrong a tasty transfer to Real Mallorca the following year, it tells us about the power of organisation, of not freezing on the big nights, of playing as a tight unit, and of taking your chances when they come along.
There are pleasing echoes of this spirit across the Celtic world as we approach Euro 2016. These are small nations in terms of population, pools of players to be drawn upon, and the relative obscurity of their national leagues. It takes a particular brand of determination, organisation and national pride to blend a squad of (in effect) foreign-based players into a unit that can hold its own against supposedly much better opposition.
The Northern Ireland squad in recent games has been packed with grafters who’ve learned a lot during their time playing in the English and Scottish leagues (plus Aaron Hughes in Australia). Even though we can see that there are players turning out for Hartlepool United, Doncaster Rovers, Notts County and Fleetwood Town, we also know that they’ve developed – with Michael O’Neill’s steady guidance and reassurance – a self-belief second to none. They’re ready for action, and the dream is very much alive.
Across the border, the pressure is off. Fans support a team from a country of fewer than five million people, the sixth smallest of the 24 countries qualifying for the finals of Euro 2016. The entire squad plays abroad, and many of them were born and raised abroad. Do fans care? Maybe it would be preferable if the League of Ireland Premier Division were on a par with the English Premier League, but maybe not. Against all the odds, this small but proud nation looking out across the Atlantic has forged something unique in footballing terms.
Cast your minds back to the biggest stage of them all: Italia 90. It seems cruel in hindsight that so much attention was heaped on Gazza – who seized the tournament by its throat and was almost singlehandedly instrumental in getting England as far as they did, until the tears – when another unbelievable narrative was developing in Cagliari and Palermo. Ireland held England (the eventual winners of Group F) 1-1, with a goal from Kevin Sheedy, and after two more draws secured second place in the group. The subsequent round-of-16 tie against Romania has gone down in folklore – many a VHS tape has worn out with constant repetition of Packie Bonner’s save and the improbable figure of David O’Leary stepping up to slot home the winning penalty in an unforgettable 5-4 shoot-out victory. OK, so the dream ended by the narrowest of margins against hosts Italy in the quarters, but where’s the shame in that?
It’s not just about the big names. It’s about spirit, teamwork and graft, and both Irish sides have this in spades. They aren’t cowed by the big occasion, and the bigger the occasion, the bigger the party their loyal armies of fans will create.
For either variety of the boys in green, what’s to stop something memorable happening in 2016? Let’s dare to dream…